Tag Archives: bioinspired engineering

A lobster’s stretch and strength in a hydrogel

An MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly, the toughest known hydrogel found in nature. Credits: Courtesy of the researchers

I love this lobster. In most photos, they’re food. This shows off the lobster as a living entity while showcasing its underbelly, which is what this story is all about. From an April 23, 2021 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

A lobster’s underbelly is lined with a thin, translucent membrane that is both stretchy and surprisingly tough. This marine under-armor, as MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] engineers reported in 2019, is made from the toughest known hydrogel in nature, which also happens to be highly flexible. This combination of strength and stretch helps shield a lobster as it scrabbles across the seafloor, while also allowing it to flex back and forth to swim.

Now a separate MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly. The researchers ran the material through a battery of stretch and impact tests, and showed that, similar to the lobster underbelly, the synthetic material is remarkably “fatigue-resistant,” able to withstand repeated stretches and strains without tearing.

If the fabrication process could be significantly scaled up, materials made from nanofibrous hydrogels could be used to make stretchy and strong replacement tissues such as artificial tendons and ligaments.

The team’s results are published in the journal Matter. The paper’s MIT co-authors include postdocs Jiahua Ni and Shaoting Lin; graduate students Xinyue Liu and Yuchen Sun; professor of aeronautics and astronautics Raul Radovitzky; professor of chemistry Keith Nelson; mechanical engineering professor Xuanhe Zhao; and former research scientist David Veysset Ph.D. ’16, now at Stanford University; along with Zhao Qin, assistant professor at Syracuse University, and Alex Hsieh of the Army Research Laboratory.

An April 23, 2021 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jennifer Chu, which originated the news item, offers an overview of the groundwork for this latest research along with technical detail about the latest work,

Nature’s twist

In 2019, Lin and other members of Zhao’s group developed a new kind of fatigue-resistant material made from hydrogel — a gelatin-like class of materials made primarily of water and cross-linked polymers. They fabricated the material from ultrathin fibers of hydrogel, which aligned like many strands of gathered straw when the material was repeatedly stretched. This workout also happened to increase the hydrogel’s fatigue resistance.

“At that moment, we had a feeling nanofibers in hydrogels were important, and hoped to manipulate the fibril structures so that we could optimize fatigue resistance,” says Lin.

In their new study, the researchers combined a number of techniques to create stronger hydrogel nanofibers. The process starts with electrospinning, a fiber production technique that uses electric charges to draw ultrathin threads out of polymer solutions. The team used high-voltage charges to spin nanofibers from a polymer solution, to form a flat film of nanofibers, each measuring about 800 nanometers — a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.

They placed the film in a high-humidity chamber to weld the individual fibers into a sturdy, interconnected network, and then set the film in an incubator to crystallize the individual nanofibers at high temperatures, further strengthening the material.

They tested the film’s fatigue-resistance by placing it in a machine that stretched it repeatedly over tens of thousands of cycles. They also made notches in some films and observed how the cracks propagated as the films were stretched repeatedly. From these tests, they calculated that the nanofibrous films were 50 times more fatigue-resistant than the conventional nanofibrous hydrogels.

Around this time, they read with interest a study by Ming Guo, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who characterized the mechanical properties of a lobster’s underbelly. This protective membrane is made from thin sheets of chitin, a natural, fibrous material that is similar in makeup to the group’s hydrogel nanofibers.

Guo found that a cross-section of the lobster membrane revealed sheets of chitin stacked at 36-degree angles, similar to twisted plywood, or a spiral staircase. This rotating, layered configuration, known as a bouligand structure, enhanced the membrane’s properties of stretch and strength.

“We learned that this bouligand structure in the lobster underbelly has high mechanical performance, which motivated us to see if we could reproduce such structures in synthetic materials,” Lin says.

Angled architecture

Ni, Lin, and members of Zhao’s group teamed up with Nelson’s lab and Radovitzky’s group in MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Qin’s lab at Syracuse University, to see if they could reproduce the lobster’s bouligand membrane structure using their synthetic, fatigue-resistant films.

“We prepared aligned nanofibers by electrospinning to mimic the chinic fibers existed in the lobster underbelly,” Ni says.

After electrospinning nanofibrous films, the researchers stacked each of five films in successive, 36-degree angles to form a single bouligand structure, which they then welded and crystallized to fortify the material. The final product measured 9 square centimeters and about 30 to 40 microns thick — about the size of a small piece of Scotch tape.

Stretch tests showed that the lobster-inspired material performed similarly to its natural counterpart, able to stretch repeatedly while resisting tears and cracks — a fatigue-resistance Lin attributes to the structure’s angled architecture.

“Intuitively, once a crack in the material propagates through one layer, it’s impeded by adjacent layers, where fibers are aligned at different angles,” Lin explains.

The team also subjected the material to microballistic impact tests with an experiment designed by Nelson’s group. They imaged the material as they shot it with microparticles at high velocity, and measured the particles’ speed before and after tearing through the material. The difference in velocity gave them a direct measurement of the material’s impact resistance, or the amount of energy it can absorb, which turned out to be a surprisingly tough 40 kilojoules per kilogram. This number is measured in the hydrated state.

“That means that a 5-millimeter steel ball launched at 200 meters per second would be arrested by 13 millimeters of the material,” Veysset says. “It is not as resistant as Kevlar, which would require 1 millimeter, but the material beats Kevlar in many other categories.”

It’s no surprise that the new material isn’t as tough as commercial antiballistic materials. It is, however, significantly sturdier than most other nanofibrous hydrogels such as gelatin and synthetic polymers like PVA. The material is also much stretchier than Kevlar. This combination of stretch and strength suggests that, if their fabrication can be sped up, and more films stacked in bouligand structures, nanofibrous hydrogels may serve as flexible and tough artificial tissues.

“For a hydrogel material to be a load-bearing artificial tissue, both strength and deformability are required,” Lin says. “Our material design could achieve these two properties.”

If you have the time and the interest, do check out the April 23, 2021 MIT news release, which features a couple of informative GIFs.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Strong fatigue-resistant nanofibrous hydrogels inspired by lobster underbelly by Jiahua Ni, Shaoting Lin, Zhao Qin, David Veysset, Xinyue Liu, Yuchen Sun, Alex J. Hsieh, Raul Radovitzky, Keith A. Nelson, Xuanhe Zhao. Matter, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.matt.2021.03.023 Published April 23, 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

An electronics-free, soft robotic dragonfly

From the description on YouTube,

With the ability to sense changes in pH, temperature and oil, this completely soft, electronics-free robot dubbed “DraBot” could be the prototype for future environmental sentinels. …

Music: Joneve by Mello C from the Free Music Archive

A favourite motif in the Art Nouveau movement (more about that later in the post), dragonflies or a facsimile thereof feature in March 25, 2021 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Ken Kingery,

Engineers at Duke University have developed an electronics-free, entirely soft robot shaped like a dragonfly that can skim across water and react to environmental conditions such as pH, temperature or the presence of oil. The proof-of-principle demonstration could be the precursor to more advanced, autonomous, long-range environmental sentinels for monitoring a wide range of potential telltale signs of problems.

The soft robot is described online March 25 [2021] in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems.

Soft robots are a growing trend in the industry due to their versatility. Soft parts can handle delicate objects such as biological tissues that metal or ceramic components would damage. Soft bodies can help robots float or squeeze into tight spaces where rigid frames would get stuck.

The expanding field was on the mind of Shyni Varghese, professor of biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and materials science, and orthopaedic surgery at Duke, when inspiration struck.

“I got an email from Shyni from the airport saying she had an idea for a soft robot that uses a self-healing hydrogel that her group has invented in the past to react and move autonomously,” said Vardhman Kumar, a PhD student in Varghese’s laboratory and first author of the paper. “But that was the extent of the email, and I didn’t hear from her again for days. So the idea sort of sat in limbo for a little while until I had enough free time to pursue it, and Shyni said to go for it.”

In 2012, Varghese and her laboratory created a self-healing hydrogel that reacts to changes in pH in a matter of seconds. Whether it be a crack in the hydrogel or two adjoining pieces “painted” with it, a change in acidity causes the hydrogel to form new bonds, which are completely reversible when the pH returns to its original levels.

Varghese’s hastily written idea was to find a way to use this hydrogel on a soft robot that could travel across water and indicate places where the pH changes. Along with a few other innovations to signal changes in its surroundings, she figured her lab could design such a robot as a sort of autonomous environmental sensor.

With the help of Ung Hyun Ko, a postdoctoral fellow also in Varghese’s laboratory, Kumar began designing a soft robot based on a fly. After several iterations, the pair settled on the shape of a dragonfly engineered with a network of interior microchannels that allow it to be controlled with air pressure.

They created the body–about 2.25 inches long with a 1.4-inch wingspan–by pouring silicon into an aluminum mold and baking it. The team used soft lithography to create interior channels and connected with flexible silicon tubing.

DraBot was born.

“Getting DraBot to respond to air pressure controls over long distances using only self-actuators without any electronics was difficult,” said Ko. “That was definitely the most challenging part.”

DraBot works by controlling the air pressure coming into its wings. Microchannels carry the air into the front wings, where it escapes through a series of holes pointed directly into the back wings. If both back wings are down, the airflow is blocked, and DraBot goes nowhere. But if both wings are up, DraBot goes forward.

To add an element of control, the team also designed balloon actuators under each of the back wings close to DraBot’s body. When inflated, the balloons cause the wings to curl upward. By changing which wings are up or down, the researchers tell DraBot where to go.

“We were happy when we were able to control DraBot, but it’s based on living things,” said Kumar. “And living things don’t just move around on their own, they react to their environment.”

That’s where self-healing hydrogel comes in. By painting one set of wings with the hydrogel, the researchers were able to make DraBot responsive to changes in the surrounding water’s pH. If the water becomes acidic, one side’s front wing fuses with the back wing. Instead of traveling in a straight line as instructed, the imbalance causes the robot to spin in a circle. Once the pH returns to a normal level, the hydrogel “un-heals,” the fused wings separate, and DraBot once again becomes fully responsive to commands.

To beef up its environmental awareness, the researchers also leveraged the sponges under the wings and doped the wings with temperature-responsive materials. When DraBot skims over water with oil floating on the surface, the sponges will soak it up and change color to the corresponding color of oil. And when the water becomes overly warm, DraBot’s wings change from red to yellow.

The researchers believe these types of measurements could play an important part in an environmental robotic sensor in the future. Responsiveness to pH can detect freshwater acidification, which is a serious environmental problem affecting several geologically-sensitive regions. The ability to soak up oils makes such long-distance skimming robots an ideal candidate for early detection of oil spills. Changing colors due to temperatures could help spot signs of red tide and the bleaching of coral reefs, which leads to decline in the population of aquatic life.

The team also sees many ways that they could improve on their proof-of-concept. Wireless cameras or solid-state sensors could enhance the capabilities of DraBot. And creating a form of onboard propellant would help similar bots break free of their tubing.

“Instead of using air pressure to control the wings, I could envision using some sort of synthetic biology that generates energy,” said Varghese. “That’s a totally different field than I work in, so we’ll have to have a conversation with some potential collaborators to see what’s possible. But that’s part of the fun of working on an interdisciplinary project like this.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Microengineered Materials with Self‐Healing Features for Soft Robotics by Vardhman Kumar, Ung Hyun Ko, Yilong Zhou, Jiaul Hoque, Gaurav Arya, Shyni Varghese. Advanced Intelligent Systems DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/aisy.202100005 First published: 25 March 2021

This paper is open access.

The earlier reference to Art Nouveau gives me an excuse to introduce this March 7, 2020 (?) essay by Bex Simon (artist blacksmith) on her eponymous website.

Dragonflies, in particular, are a very poplar subject matter in the Art Nouveau movement. Art Nouveau, with its wonderful flowing lines and hidden fantasies, is full of symbolism.  The movement was a response to the profound social changes and industrialization of every day life and the style of the moment was, in part, inspired by Japanese art.

Simon features examples of Art Nouveau dragonfly art along with examples of her own take on the subject. She also has this,

[downloaded from https://www.bexsimon.com/dragonflies-and-butterflies-in-art-nouveau/]

This is a closeup of a real dragonfly as seen on Simon’s website. If you have an interest, reading her March 7, 2020 (?) essay and gazing at the images won’t take much time.

Submersible dandelions and the materials they could inspire

Before launching into the news item and if you’re as ignorant about the term as I was, here’s what it means to be a dandelion clock, from the dandelion clock definition on Wiktionary [Note: Links have been removed]),

A single stem of a dandelion in its post-flowering state with the downy covering of its head intact. The term is applied when the flower is used, or is thought of as suitable for use, in a children’s pastime by which the number of puffs needed to blow the filamentous achenes from a dandelion is supposed to tell the time.

A March 3, 2021 news item on phys.org announces dandelion research (Note: A link has been removed),

Fields are covered with dandelions in spring, a very common plant with yellow-gold flowers and toothed leaves. When they wither, the flowers turn into fluffy white seed heads that, like tiny parachutes, are scattered around by the wind. Taraxacum officinale—its scientific name—inspired legends and poems and has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for many ailments.

Now, thanks to a study conducted at the University of Trento [Università di Trento], dandelions will inspire new engineered materials. The air trapping capacity of dandelion clocks [emphasis mine] submerged in water has been measured in the lab for the first time. The discovery paves the way for the development of new and advanced devices and technologies that could be used in a broad range of applications, for example, to create devices or materials that retain air bubbles under water.

I found the dandelion squeezing sequence to be quite fascinating.

A March 3, 2021 Università di Trento press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The study was coordinated by Nicola Pugno, professor of the University of Trento and coordinator of the Laboratory of Bio-inspired, Bionic, Nano, Meta Materials & Mechanics at the Department of Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering.
The discovery was given international prominence by “Materials Today Bio”, a multidisciplinary journal focused on the interface between biology and materials science, chemistry, physics, engineering, and medicine.

Nicola Pugno outlined how the research unfolded: “Diego Misseroni and I started to work on a discovery that my daughter made, in her first year in high school. She noticed that dandelion clocks, when submerged by water, turn silvery because they trap air. We have quantified this discovery. For the first time, we have measured the air trapping capacity of dandelion clocks in a laboratory setting. This paper demonstrated that kids and young adults can make significant discoveries by observing nature”.

When submerged in water, the research team observed, the soft seed heads turn silver in color, become thinner and take on a rhombus-like shape. The team then developed an analytical model to measure the mechanical properties of the flower, in order to mimic them and create re-engineered dandelion-like materials.

Bioinspired engineering can explore different opportunities thanks to this discovery, such as miniaturized parachute-like elements to develop innovative devices and advanced, light and low-cost technological solutions to trap and transport air bubbles underwater. These materials could be used, for example, in underwater operations.

It’s been a while (see my Nov. 21, 2018 posting ‘Regenerating tooth enamel’) since I’ve featured research from Nicola Pugno here.

Here’s a link to and a citation for Pugno’s dandelion-ispired work

Air-encapsulating elastic mechanism of submerged Taraxacum blowballs by M.C.Pugno, D.Misseroni, N.M.Pugno. Materials Today Bio Volume 9, January 2021, 100095 DOI: 10.1016/j.mtbio.2021.100095

This paper is open access.

Good for your bones and good for art conservation: calcium

The statues on Easter Island, the Great Wall of China, Egyptian pyramids, MesoAmerican pyramids, castles in Europe and other structures made of stone are deteriorating and now comes another approach to halting the destruction. (I have covered other approaches to the problem in two previous postings, a December 5, 2017 posting, Europe’s cathedrals get a ‘lift’ with nanoparticles, and an October 21, 2014 posting, Heart of stone.)

An August 7, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the latest in conserving stone monuments and structures,

When it comes to cultural heritage sites, there are few things historians wouldn’t do to preserve them for future generations. In particular, stone buildings and sculptures made of plaster and marble are increasingly at risk of damage from air pollution, acid rain and other factors. Researchers now report a new, calcium-based conservation treatment inspired by nature that overcomes many drawbacks of currently used methods.

An August 7, 2019 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more technical detail,

Historically, conservation scientists have turned to alkoxysilanes, silicon-based molecules used to consolidate stone and other artworks, in their preservation efforts. However, alkoxysilane treatments do not bond properly with non-silicate surfaces, are prone to cracking and are limited in their ability to repel water. Adding other compounds to this treatment have helped overcome these effects, but only to a point. Instead Encarnación Ruiz Agudo and colleagues looked to nature for inspiration, and found that calcium could be the answer. As a major element of strong, natural structures like bone and kidney stones, the researchers theorized that nanoparticles made from calcium could bolster alkoxysilanes and provide the desired protective effects to conserve historical artifacts.

The researchers made calcium carbonate and calcium oxalate nanoparticles and included polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) as a stabilizer. PDMS also likely helps the nanoparticles bond to surfaces. The team added the nanoparticles to traditional alkoxysilane treatments, then applied them to samples of three different building materials: white marble, calcarenite limestone and gypsum plaster, and put the samples through a battery of tests. Overall, the results showed enhanced hydrophobicity, less cracking and improved surface adhesion compared to alkoxysilane treatments alone, with calcium oxalate providing a marked improvement in acid resistance. A minimal color effect was observed, but the researchers say this change was within acceptable values for conservation efforts.

The authors acknowledge funding from the European Regional Development Fund, the Regional Government of Andalusia, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Finance and the University of Granada.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bioinspired Alkoxysilane Conservation Treatments for Building Materials Based on Amorphous Calcium Carbonate and Oxalate Nanoparticles by A. Burgos-Cara, C. Rodríguez-Navarro, M. Ortega-Huertas, E. Ruiz-Agudo. ACS Appl. Nano Mater.2019XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsanm.9b00905 Publication Date:July 18, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Colo(u)r-changing building surfaces thanks to gold nanoparticles

Gold, at the nanoscale, has different properties than it has at the macroscale and research at the University of Cambridge has found a new way to exploit gold’s unique properties at the nanoscale according to a May 13, 2019 news item item on ScienceDaily,

The smallest pixels yet created — a million times smaller than those in smartphones, made by trapping particles of light under tiny rocks of gold — could be used for new types of large-scale flexible displays, big enough to cover entire buildings.

The colour pixels, developed by a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge, are compatible with roll-to-roll fabrication on flexible plastic films, dramatically reducing their production cost. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances [May 10, 2019].

A May 10,2019 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

It has been a long-held dream to mimic the colour-changing skin of octopus or squid, allowing people or objects to disappear into the natural background, but making large-area flexible display screens is still prohibitively expensive because they are constructed from highly precise multiple layers.

At the centre of the pixels developed by the Cambridge scientists is a tiny particle of gold a few billionths of a metre across. The grain sits on top of a reflective surface, trapping light in the gap in between. Surrounding each grain is a thin sticky coating which changes chemically when electrically switched, causing the pixel to change colour across the spectrum.

The team of scientists, from different disciplines including physics, chemistry and manufacturing, made the pixels by coating vats of golden grains with an active polymer called polyaniline and then spraying them onto flexible mirror-coated plastic, to dramatically drive down production cost.

The pixels are the smallest yet created, a million times smaller than typical smartphone pixels. They can be seen in bright sunlight and because they do not need constant power to keep their set colour, have an energy performance that makes large areas feasible and sustainable. “We started by washing them over aluminized food packets, but then found aerosol spraying is faster,” said co-lead author Hyeon-Ho Jeong from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

“These are not the normal tools of nanotechnology, but this sort of radical approach is needed to make sustainable technologies feasible,” said Professor Jeremy J Baumberg of the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “The strange physics of light on the nanoscale allows it to be switched, even if less than a tenth of the film is coated with our active pixels. That’s because the apparent size of each pixel for light is many times larger than their physical area when using these resonant gold architectures.”

The pixels could enable a host of new application possibilities such as building-sized display screens, architecture which can switch off solar heat load, active camouflage clothing and coatings, as well as tiny indicators for coming internet-of-things devices.
The team are currently working at improving the colour range and are looking for partners to develop the technology further.

The research is funded as part of a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) investment in the Cambridge NanoPhotonics Centre, as well as the European Research Council (ERC) and the China Scholarship Council.

This image accompanies the press release,

Caption: eNPoMs formed from gold nanoparticles (Au NPs) encapsulated in a conductive polymer shell. Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Jialong Peng Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Jialong Peng

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Scalable electrochromic nanopixels using plasmonics by Jialong Peng, Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Qianqi Lin, Sean Cormier, Hsin-Ling Liang, Michael F. L. De Volder, Silvia Vignolini, and Jeremy J. Baumberg. Science Advances Vol. 5, no. 5, eaaw2205 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2205 Published: 01 May 2019

This paper appears to be open access.

Iridescent giant clams could point the way to safety, climatologically speaking

Giant clams in Palau (Cynthia Barnett)

These don’t look like any clams I’ve ever seen but that is the point of Cynthia Barnett’s absorbing Sept. 10, 2018 article for The Atlantic (Note: A link has been removed),

Snorkeling amid the tree-tangled rock islands of Ngermid Bay in the western Pacific nation of Palau, Alison Sweeney lingers at a plunging coral ledge, photographing every giant clam she sees along a 50-meter transect. In Palau, as in few other places in the world, this means she is going to be underwater for a skin-wrinkling long time.

At least the clams are making it easy for Sweeney, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The animals plump from their shells like painted lips, shimmering in blues, purples, greens, golds, and even electric browns. The largest are a foot across and radiate from the sea floor, but most are the smallest of the giant clams, five-inch Tridacna crocea, living higher up on the reef. Their fleshy Technicolor smiles beam in all directions from the corals and rocks of Ngermid Bay.

… Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans. (Ngermid Bay is more commonly known as “Nikko Bay,” but traditional leaders and government officials are working to revive the indigenous name of Ngermid.)

Even those clams living on bleached corals are pulsing color, like wildflowers in a white-hot desert. Sweeney’s ponytail flows out behind her as she nears them with her camera. They startle back into their fluted shells. Like bashful fairytale creatures cursed with irresistible beauty, they cannot help but draw attention with their sparkly glow.

Barnett makes them seem magical and perhaps they are (Note: A link has been removed),

It’s the glow that drew Sweeney’s attention to giant clams, and to Palau, a tiny republic of more than 300 islands between the Philippines and Guam. Its sun-laden waters are home to seven of the world’s dozen giant-clam species, from the storied Tridacna gigas—which can weigh an estimated 550 pounds and measure over four feet across—to the elegantly fluted Tridacna squamosa. Sweeney first came to the archipelago in 2009, while working on animal iridescence as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Whether shimmering from a blue morpho butterfly’s wings or a squid’s skin, iridescence is almost always associated with a visual signal—one used to attract mates or confuse predators. Giant clams’ luminosity is not such a signal. So, what is it?

In the years since, Sweeney and her colleagues have discovered that the clams’ iridescence is essentially the outer glow of a solar transformer—optimized over millions of years to run on sunlight and algal biofuel. Giant clams reach their cartoonish proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other scientists think this evolved expertise may shed light on alternative fuel technologies and other industrial solutions for a warming world.

Barnett goes on to describe Palau’s relationship to the clams and the clams’ environment,

Palau’s islands have been inhabited for at least 3,400 years, and from the start, giant clams were a staple of diet, daily life, and even deity. Many of the islands’ oldest-surviving tools are crafted of thick giant-clam shell: arched-blade adzes, fishhooks, gougers, heavy taro-root pounders. Giant-clam shell makes up more than three-fourths of some of the oldest shell middens in Palau, a percentage that decreases through the centuries. Archaeologists suggest that the earliest islanders depleted the giant clams that crowded the crystalline shallows, then may have self-corrected. Ancient Palauan conservation law, known as bul, prohibited fishing during critical spawning periods, or when a species showed signs of over-harvesting.

Before the Christianity that now dominates Palauan religion sailed in on eighteenth-century mission ships, the culture’s creation lore began with a giant clam called to life in an empty sea. The clam grew bigger and bigger until it sired Latmikaik, the mother of human children, who birthed them with the help of storms and ocean currents.

The legend evokes giant clams in their larval phase, moving with the currents for their first two weeks of life. Before they can settle, the swimming larvae must find and ingest one or two photosynthetic alga, which later multiply, becoming self-replicating fuel cells. After the larvae down the alga and develop a wee shell and a foot, they kick around like undersea farmers, looking for a sunny spot for their crop. When they’ve chosen a well-lit home in a shallow lagoon or reef, they affix to the rock, their shell gaping to the sky. After the sun hits and photosynthesis begins, the microalgae will multiply to millions, or in the case of T. gigas, billions, and clam and algae will live in symbiosis for life.

Giant clam is a beloved staple in Palau and many other Pacific islands, prepared raw with lemon, simmered into coconut soup, baked into a savory pancake, or sliced and sautéed in a dozen other ways. But luxury demand for their ivory-like shells and their adductor muscle, which is coveted as high-end sashimi and an alleged aphrodisiac, has driven T. gigas extinct in China, Taiwan, and other parts of their native habitat. Some of the toughest marine-protection laws in the world, along with giant-clam aquaculture pioneered here, have helped Palau’s wild clams survive. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center raises hundreds of thousands of giant clams a year, supplying local clam farmers who sell to restaurants and the aquarium trade and keeping pressure off the wild population. But as other nations have wiped out their clams, Palau’s 230,000-square-mile ocean territory is an increasing target of illegal foreign fishers.

Barnett delves into how the country of Palau is responding to the voracious appetite for the giant clams and other marine life,

Palau, drawing on its ancient conservation tradition of bul, is fighting back. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which prohibits fishing in 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone and creates a domestic fishing area in the remaining 20 percent, set aside for local fishers selling to local markets. In 2016, the nation received a $6.6 million grant from Japan to launch a major renovation of the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center. Now under construction at the waterfront on the southern tip of Malakal Island, the new facility will amp up clam-aquaculture research and increase giant-clam production five-fold, to more than a million seedlings a year.

Last year, Palau amended its immigration policy to require that all visitors sign a pledge to behave in an ecologically responsible manner. The pledge, stamped into passports by an immigration officer who watches you sign, is written to the island’s children:

Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.

The pledge is winning hearts and public-relations awards. But Palau’s existential challenge is still the collective “we,” the world’s rising carbon emissions and the resulting upturns in global temperatures, sea levels, and destructive storms.

F. Umiich Sengebau, Palau’s Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, grew up on Koror and is full of giant-clam proverbs, wisdom and legends from his youth. He tells me a story I also heard from an elder in the state of Airai: that in old times, giant clams were known as “stormy-weather food,” the fresh staple that was easy to collect and have on hand when it was too stormy to go out fishing.

As Palau faces the storms of climate change, Sengebau sees giant clams becoming another sort of stormy-weather food, serving as a secure source of protein; a fishing livelihood; a glowing icon for tourists; and now, an inspiration for alternative energy and other low-carbon technologies. “In the old days, clams saved us,” Sengebau tells me. “I think there’s a lot of power in that, a great power and meaning in the history of clams as food, and now clams as science.”

I highly recommend Barnett’s article, which is one article in a larger series, from a November 6, 2017 The Atlantic press release,

The Atlantic is expanding the global footprint of its science writing today with a multi-year series to investigate life in all of its multitudes. The series, “Life Up Close,” created with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education (HHMI), begins today at TheAtlantic.com. In the first piece for the project, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer travels to Greenland to report on the potentially dangerous microbes emerging from thawing Arctic permafrost.

The project is ambitious in both scope and geographic reach, and will explore how life is adapting to our changing planet. Journalists will travel the globe to examine these changes as they happen to microbes, plants, and animals in oceans, grasslands, forests, deserts, and the icy poles. The Atlantic will question where humans should look for life next: from the Martian subsurface, to Europa’s oceans, to the atmosphere of nearby stars and beyond. “Life Up Close” will feature at least twenty reported pieces continuing through 2018.

“The Atlantic has been around for 160 years, but that’s a mere pinpoint in history when it comes to questions of life and where it started, and where we’re going,” said Ross Andersen, The Atlantic’s senior editor who oversees science, tech, and health. “The questions that this project will set out to tackle are critical; and this support will allow us to cover new territory in new and more ambitious ways.”

About The Atlantic:
Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. The Atlantic is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief.

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Department of Science Education:
HHMI is the leading private nonprofit supporter of scientific research and science education in the United States. The Department of Science Education’s BioInteractive division produces free, high quality educational media for science educators and millions of students around the globe, its HHMI Tangled Bank Studios unit crafts powerful stories of scientific discovery for television and big screens, and its grants program aims to transform science education in universities and colleges. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

Getting back to the giant clams, sometimes all you can do is marvel, eh?

Moths with sound absorption stealth technology

The cabbage tree emperor moth (Thomas Neil) [downloaded from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/nov-17-2018-greenland-asteroid-impact-short-people-in-the-rain-forest-reef-islands-and-sea-level-and-more-1.4906857/how-moths-evolved-a-kind-of-stealth-jet-technology-to-sneak-past-bats-1.4906866]

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more gorgeous moth and it seems a perfect way to enter 2019, from a November 16, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation),

A species of silk moth has evolved special sound absorbing scales on its wings to absorb the sonar pulses from hunting bats. This is analogous to the special coatings on stealth aircraft that allow them to be nearly invisible to radar.

“It’s a battle out there every night, insects flying for their lives trying to avoid becoming a bat’s next dinner,” said Dr. Marc Holderied, the senior author on the paper and an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.

“If you manage to absorb some of these sound energies, it would make you look smaller and let you be detectable over a shorter distance because echoe isn’t strong enough outside the detection bubble.”

Many moths have ears that warn them when a bat is nearby. But not the big and juicy cabbage tree emperor moths which would ordinarily make the perfect meal for bats.

The researchers prepared a brief animated feature illustrating the research,

Prior to publication of the study, the scientists made a presentation at the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th Meeting, held in conjunction with the Canadian Acoustical Association’s 2018 Acoustics Week, Nov. 5-9 at the Victoria Conference Centre in Victoria, Canada according to a November 7, 2018 University of Bristol press release (also on EurekAlert but submitted by the Acoustical Society of America on November 6, 2018),

Moths are a mainstay food source for bats, which use echolocation (biological sonar) to hunt their prey. Scientists such as Thomas Neil, from the University of Bristol in the U.K., are studying how moths have evolved passive defenses over millions of years to resist their primary predators.

While some moths have evolved ears that detect the ultrasonic calls of bats, many types of moths remain deaf. In those moths, Neil has found that the insects developed types of “stealth coating” that serve as acoustic camouflage to evade hungry bats.

Neil will describe his work during the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th Meeting, held in conjunction with the Canadian Acoustical Association’s 2018 Acoustics Week, Nov. 5-9 at the Victoria Conference Centre in Victoria, Canada.

In his presentation, Neil will focus on how fur on a moth’s thorax and wing joints provide acoustic stealth by reducing the echoes of these body parts from bat calls.

“Thoracic fur provides substantial acoustic stealth at all ecologically relevant ultrasonic frequencies,” said Neil, a researcher at Bristol University. “The thorax fur of moths acts as a lightweight porous sound absorber, facilitating acoustic camouflage and offering a significant survival advantage against bats.” Removing the fur from the moth’s thorax increased its detection risk by as much as 38 percent.

Neil used acoustic tomography to quantify echo strength in the spatial and frequency domains of two deaf moth species that are subject to bat predation and two butterfly species that are not.

In comparing the effects of removing thorax fur from insects that serve as food for bats to those that don’t, Neil’s research team found that thoracic fur determines acoustic camouflage of moths but not butterflies.

“We found that the fur on moths was both thicker and denser than that of the butterflies, and these parameters seem to be linked with the absorptive performance of their respective furs,” Neil said. “The thorax fur of the moths was able to absorb up to 85 percent of the impinging sound energy. The maximum absorption we found in butterflies was just 20 percent.”

Neil’s research could contribute to the development of biomimetic materials for ultrathin sound absorbers and other noise-control devices.

“Moth fur is thin and lightweight,” said Neil, “and acts as a broadband and multidirectional ultrasound absorber that is on par with the performance of current porous sound-absorbing foams.”

Moth fur? This has changed my view of moths although I reserve the right to get cranky when local moths chew through my wool sweaters. Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Biomechanics of a moth scale at ultrasonic frequencies by Zhiyuan Shen, Thomas R. Neil, Daniel Robert, Bruce W. Drinkwater, and Marc W. Holderied. PNAS [Proccedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America] November 27, 2018 115 (48) 12200-12205; published ahead of print November 12, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810025115

This paper is behind a paywall.

Unusually I’m going to include the paper’s abstract here,

The wings of moths and butterflies are densely covered in scales that exhibit intricate shapes and sculptured nanostructures. While certain butterfly scales create nanoscale photonic effects [emphasis mine], moth scales show different nanostructures suggesting different functionality. Here we investigate moth-scale vibrodynamics to understand their role in creating acoustic camouflage against bat echolocation, where scales on wings provide ultrasound absorber functionality. For this, individual scales can be considered as building blocks with adapted biomechanical properties at ultrasonic frequencies. The 3D nanostructure of a full Bunaea alcinoe moth forewing scale was characterized using confocal microscopy. Structurally, this scale is double layered and endowed with different perforation rates on the upper and lower laminae, which are interconnected by trabeculae pillars. From these observations a parameterized model of the scale’s nanostructure was formed and its effective elastic stiffness matrix extracted. Macroscale numerical modeling of scale vibrodynamics showed close qualitative and quantitative agreement with scanning laser Doppler vibrometry measurement of this scale’s oscillations, suggesting that the governing biomechanics have been captured accurately. Importantly, this scale of B. alcinoe exhibits its first three resonances in the typical echolocation frequency range of bats, suggesting it has evolved as a resonant absorber. Damping coefficients of the moth-scale resonator and ultrasonic absorption of a scaled wing were estimated using numerical modeling. The calculated absorption coefficient of 0.50 agrees with the published maximum acoustic effect of wing scaling. Understanding scale vibroacoustic behavior helps create macroscopic structures with the capacity for broadband acoustic camouflage.

Those nanoscale photonic effects caused by butterfly scales are something I’d usually describe as optical effects due to the nanoscale structures on some butterfly wings, notably those of the Blue Morpho butterfly. In fact there’s a whole field of study on what’s known as structural colo(u)r. Strictly speaking I’m not sure you could describe the nanostructures on Glasswing butterflies as an example of structure colour since those structures make that butterfly’s wings transparent but they are definitely an optical effect. For the curious, you can use ‘blue morpho butterfly’, ‘glasswing butterfly’ or ‘structural colo(u)r’ to search for more on this blog or pursue bigger fish with an internet search.

Graphene ribbons in solution bending and twisting like DNA

An Aug. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into graphene nanoribbons and their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)-like properties,

Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) bend and twist easily in solution, making them adaptable for biological uses like DNA analysis, drug delivery and biomimetic applications, according to scientists at Rice University.

Knowing the details of how GNRs behave in a solution will help make them suitable for wide use in biomimetics, according to Rice physicist Ching-Hwa Kiang, whose lab employed its unique capabilities to probe nanoscale materials like cells and proteins in wet environments. Biomimetic materials are those that imitate the forms and properties of natural materials.

An Aug. 15, 2016 Rice University (Texas, US) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the ribbons and the research in more detail,

Graphene nanoribbons can be thousands of times longer than they are wide. They can be produced in bulk by chemically “unzipping” carbon nanotubes, a process invented by Rice chemist and co-author James Tour and his lab.

Their size means they can operate on the scale of biological components like proteins and DNA, Kiang said. “We study the mechanical properties of all different kinds of materials, from proteins to cells, but a little different from the way other people do,” she said. “We like to see how materials behave in solution, because that’s where biological things are.” Kiang is a pioneer in developing methods to probe the energy states of proteins as they fold and unfold.

She said Tour suggested her lab have a look at the mechanical properties of GNRs. “It’s a little extra work to study these things in solution rather than dry, but that’s our specialty,” she said.

Nanoribbons are known for adding strength but not weight to solid-state composites, like bicycle frames and tennis rackets, and forming an electrically active matrix. A recent Rice project infused them into an efficient de-icer coating for aircraft.

But in a squishier environment, their ability to conform to surfaces, carry current and strengthen composites could also be valuable.

“It turns out that graphene behaves reasonably well, somewhat similar to other biological materials. But the interesting part is that it behaves differently in a solution than it does in air,” she said. The researchers found that like DNA and proteins, nanoribbons in solution naturally form folds and loops, but can also form helicoids, wrinkles and spirals.

Kiang, Wijeratne [Sithara Wijeratne, Rice graduate now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University] and Jingqiang Li, a co-author and student in the Kiang lab, used atomic force microscopy to test their properties. Atomic force microscopy can not only gather high-resolution images but also take sensitive force measurements of nanomaterials by pulling on them. The researchers probed GNRs and their precursors, graphene oxide nanoribbons.

The researchers discovered that all nanoribbons become rigid under stress, but their rigidity increases as oxide molecules are removed to turn graphene oxide nanoribbons into GNRs. They suggested this ability to tune their rigidity should help with the design and fabrication of GNR-biomimetic interfaces.

“Graphene and graphene oxide materials can be functionalized (or modified) to integrate with various biological systems, such as DNA, protein and even cells,” Kiang said. “These have been realized in biological devices, biomolecule detection and molecular medicine. The sensitivity of graphene bio-devices can be improved by using narrow graphene materials like nanoribbons.”

Wijeratne noted graphene nanoribbons are already being tested for use in DNA sequencing, in which strands of DNA are pulled through a nanopore in an electrified material. The base components of DNA affect the electric field, which can be read to identify the bases.

The researchers saw nanoribbons’ biocompatibility as potentially useful for sensors that could travel through the body and report on what they find, not unlike the Tour lab’s nanoreporters that retrieve information from oil wells.

Further studies will focus on the effect of the nanoribbons’ width, which range from 10 to 100 nanometers, on their properties.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Detecting the Biopolymer Behavior of Graphene Nanoribbons in Aqueous Solution by Sithara S. Wijeratne, Evgeni S. Penev, Wei Lu, Jingqiang Li, Amanda L. Duque, Boris I. Yakobson, James M. Tour, & Ching-Hwa Kiang. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 31174 (2016)  doi:10.1038/srep31174 Published online: 09 August 2016

This paper is open access.

Glasswing butterflies teach us about reflection

Contrary to other transparent surfaces, the wings of the glasswing butterfly (Greta Oto) hardly reflect any light. Lenses or displays of mobiles might profit from the investigation of this phenomenon. (Photo: Radwanul Hasan Siddique, KIT)

Contrary to other transparent surfaces, the wings of the glasswing butterfly (Greta Oto) hardly reflect any light. Lenses or displays of mobiles might profit from the investigation of this phenomenon. (Photo: Radwanul Hasan Siddique, KIT)

I wouldn’t have really believed. Other than glass, I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s as transparent and distortion-free as this butterfly’s wings.

An April 22, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily provides more information about the butterfly,

The effect is known from the smart phone: Sun is reflected by the display and hardly anything can be seen. In contrast to this, the glasswing butterfly hardly reflects any light in spite of its transparent wings. As a result, it is difficult for predatory birds to track the butterfly during the flight. Researchers of KIT under the direction of Hendrik Hölscher found that irregular nanostructures on the surface of the butterfly wing cause the low reflection. In theoretical experiments, they succeeded in reproducing the effect that opens up fascinating application options, e.g. for displays of mobile phones or laptops.

An April 22, 2015 Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the scientific interest,

Transparent materials such as glass, always reflect part of the incident light. Some animals with transparent surfaces, such as the moth with its eyes, succeed in keeping the reflections small, but only when the view angle is vertical to the surface. The wings of the glasswing butterfly that lives mainly in Central America, however, also have a very low reflection when looking onto them under higher angles. Depending on the view angle, specular reflection varies between two and five percent. For comparison: As a function of the view angle, a flat glass plane reflects between eight and 100 percent, i.e. reflection exceeds that of the butterfly wing by several factors. Interestingly, the butterfly wing does not only exhibit a low reflection of the light spectrum visible to humans, but also suppresses the infrared and ultraviolet radiation that can be perceived by animals. This is important to the survival of the butterfly.

For research into this so far unstudied phenomenon, the scientists examined glasswings by scanning electron microscopy. Earlier studies revealed that regular pillar-like nanostructures are responsible for the low reflections of other animals. The scientists now also found nanopillars on the butterfly wings. In contrast to previous findings, however, they are arranged irregularly and feature a random height. Typical height of the pillars varies between 400 and 600 nanometers, the distance of the pillars ranges between 100 and 140 nanometers. This corresponds to about one thousandth of a human hair.

In simulations, the researchers mathematically modeled this irregularity of the nanopillars in height and arrangement. They found that the calculated reflected amount of light exactly corresponds to the observed amount at variable view angles. In this way, they proved that the low reflection at variable view angles is caused by this irregularity of the nanopillars. Hölscher’s doctoral student Radwanul Hasan Siddique, who discovered this effect, considers the glasswing butterfly a fascinating animal: “Not only optically with its transparent wings, but also scientifically. In contrast to other natural phenomena, where regularity is of top priority, the glasswing butterfly uses an apparent chaos to reach effects that are also fascinating for us humans.”

The findings open up a range of applications wherever low-reflection surfaces are needed, for lenses or displays of mobile phones, for instance. Apart from theoretical studies of the phenomenon, the infrastructure of the Institute of Microstructure Technology also allows for practical implementation. First application tests are in the conception phase at the moment. Prototype experiments, however, already revealed that this type of surface coating also has a water-repellent and self-cleaning effect.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The role of random nanostructures for the omnidirectional anti-reflection properties of the glasswing butterfly by Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Guillaume Gomard, & Hendrik Hölscher. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6909 doi:10.1038/ncomms7909 Published 22 April 2015

The paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.